By a 6-1 vote, the Santa Barbara City Council embraced the sweeping goal of zero traffic fatalities within city limits — a platform dubbed Vision Zero in Sweden, San Francisco, and New York — put forward by bicycle- and pedestrian-transit advocates. How the council hopes to implement this agenda has yet to be seen, but, typically, it involves stepped-up coordination between traffic engineers and traffic cops coupled with an intense public awareness campaign.
In Sweden, the number of road fatalities reportedly dropped by half after Vision Zero was adopted; in San Francisco, it dropped by 25 percent. Giving heft to the advocates’ argument are statistics showing that Santa Barbara ranks second in number of pedestrians injured and fourth for bicyclists hurt in traffic collisions out of 102 California cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000.
In terms of overall injuries and fatalities, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety, Santa Barbara ranks worst. In the past 10 years, there’ve been 28 fatal accidents, five involving bicyclists and 12 pedestrians. Such rankings, however, can be interpreted many ways. Of the 964 bicycle injuries reported in the past 10 years, for example, only 10 percent were deemed “serious” enough by police to require medical attention. Of the five bicycle fatalities, three of the riders were seriously intoxicated.
The push for Vision Zero comes at the same time as City Hall is embarking on a major new bicycle master plan. Advocating for Vision Zero before the council was the brother of a UCSB graduate student who was recently killed while riding his bike outside Santa Maria by a 16-year-old driving a truck. He described the platform as “agnostic in its approach toward pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists,” adding, “It’s not an us-them scenario.” His sentiments were echoed by the mother of a teenage long-distance runner struck by a motorist while on West Valerio Street, who demanded, “Something needs to be done.”
Traffic planners expressed mixed feelings, supporting the notion with one breath while fretting it might divert limited resources from other endeavors with the next. Some councilmembers likewise wondered whether endorsing a feel-good commitment might require bulb-outs, street narrowing, and other traffic-calming measures, which in recent years has been the stuff of intense controversy. A few people argued against Vision Zero, contending traffic safety depended on the personal responsibility of all involved.
Tom Becker, a longtime advocate for automobile rights, demanded, “What, are you insane?” adding that to put such responsibilities in the hands of “some traffic engineer is obscene.” Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss cast the sole vote against the measure, worrying that it might put cyclists and pedestrians in harm’s way by creating a false sense of safety. “This is like a big blanket that will make us feel good,” said Hotchkiss, “but it’s not going to keep us warm.”
Mayor Helene Schneider argued city traffic engineers were already pursuing aspects of the Vision Zero agenda, though without giving it the name. She cited a host of recent traffic safety improvements installed on Milpas Street after a high school student was killed crossing the road. Since those improvements went into effect, the overall number of collisions has remained the same, but the severity of the accidents has dropped dramatically.